A Feature Review of
The Congregation in A Secular Age
Reviewed by Joel Wentz
Do you ever stop to consider your experience of time? As the father of a toddler, many days my experience of time consists of simply hoping that his two-hour afternoon nap feels as long as possible. When I’m in a more reflective mood, I reminisce about those days during college, in which time itself seemed abundant (though of course I try not to think too much about how much of that precious time I squandered on dorm pranks and video games). But all too frequently, my general experience of time can be boiled down to: wishing there was more of it. There are always uncompleted tasks, books I want to sit down and read, unexpected interruptions, and of course, that pesky need for sleep. Time is ever slipping through my grasp, and yet I careen forward into my neverending to-do lists without acknowledging the speed at which I am moving.
Well, according to practical theologian and cultural analyst Andrew Root in his new book The Congregation in A Secular Age, this is a very common experience in the throes of the secular “malaise” of post-modernity. In fact, maintaining our speed is one way in which we avoid confronting the immanent meaninglessness of secularity that is ever pressing in around us. Why are we so busy? What are we ultimately trying to accomplish here? What’s it all for? Simply asking these questions can cause us to become “nauseated by immanence” and feel the “void of emptiness touching [our] soul.” Root declares, “Better to speed up than to feel that. Time itself, in our secular age, has no aim beyond itself.” (22) Time itself has been emptied.
Yeah, it’s a pretty depressing thought.
But, according to Root, that’s precisely the point. For what happens when it isn’t only a collection of individuals that experience this, but an entire culture? Or, more to the point, an entire congregation? This relentless pace, and the diligent avoidance of confronting meaning that it demands, marks the experiences of too many of congregations today. To press the point even further, too many of our ecclesiological structures have willingly capitulated to secular modernity’s control of time and what makes life meaningful. Rather than confronting these realities, we surrender to them, by stuffing our congregational rhythms with more and more programs, or increasingly trying to “innovate,” and as a result, drive our communities directly into a congregational depression. Who can keep up? Or, who wants to keep up, if they can’t remember why they are trying to?
In the third and final installment of his “ministry in a secular age” project, Andrew Root develops his ongoing dialogue with the work of Charles Taylor, this time directing his focus towards the life of the congregation (the first two volumes were focused on youth ministry and the pastoral vocation, respectively). Interweaving philosophy, cultural criticism and constructive theology, Root has put forward a work that is part-diagnostic as well as forward-looking and practical (though the majority of the work is devoted to diagnosis and critique).
It’s hard for me to imagine many readers disagreeing with Root’s diagnosis of “busyness” and “empty time” as a plague in the life of, not only churches, but most people in our culture. In particular, his articulation of the ways in which our culture defines “fullness” as “busyness” struck a deep chord with me personally, and as a pastor, made sense of what I see in the lives of many congregants. What elevates Root’s work, and what some readers may struggle with, is his strident critique of the focus on endless “innovation” in our ecclesiology. The lust for innovation may actually point to how our imaginations have been formed more by Silicon Valley than by eternity.
The congregation seeking change through innovation risks opening our social lives to a moral horizon that may deliver a false sense of fullness, a warped conception of humanity, and a flat notion of the yearning of the human spirit. . . For church leaders to adopt innovation as the frame for birthing the congregation’s future, using innovative practices to update the church to meet the accelerating speed of modernity, is to (knowingly or not) shift the shape of our social lives onto a constant accelerating path. (76, emphasis added)
I could not help but reflect on the high-energy conferences and summits I’ve attended over my years in vocational ministry, in which the “new, successful” program or leader is always paraded upfront, hyped, and those in attendance are called to emulate. Admittedly, these experiences are always exciting, in the moment, but are typically followed by a deflating sense of exhaustion or discouragement. Again, who can keep up? And how do I know if I’m managing to keep pace? “Innovation itself has to go through a dialectic of judgement and rebirth. It has to be judged for its false claims of ultimacy and reductions of the human spirit, and then it can be given back.” (132). Yes and amen.
Before turning from critique to constructive proposals, it bears mentioning that Root devotes a significant portion of The Congregation in A Secular Age to the work of social theorist Hartmut Rosa, particularly his work on “social acceleration.” As someone who has not read Rosa myself, I found this section extremely stimulating, and it spurred my own interest to seek out Rosa’s work. The three dimensions of acceleration as defined by Rosa (technology, social life, pace) are thoughtfully explored through several chapters, with personal anecdotes (and even the occasional humorous writing) threaded throughout. Root does an admirable job making heady theorists like Taylor and Rosa accessible to the uninitiated reader, but it is still cerebral. Those who cannot stand theoretical academic work will probably struggle, but nevertheless, Root shines in his ability to maintain a firm grip on the theoretical, and to connect it winsomely to the practical life of a church leader. Those who have not read Taylor or Rosa, but are willing to grapple a bit with deep, academic cultural criticism, should not feel intimidated.
Speaking of the practical, Root lands this project with a stirring exploration of “resonance” as the antidote to depressed and accelerated congregations. Resonance breaks the acceleration of time, injecting it with fullness. “Reading that poem, watching that movie, looking over that mountain vista, laughing and playing with that four-year-old. Such experiences are full. You feel a resonance between yourself and the world, a felt relationship that reverberates at the frequency of the good.” (195, emphasis added) The more congregations can cultivate these experiences (though such deep resonance admittedly cannot be controlled, something else that is discussed in this section), the more we will recover from our time-starved depression. The more we will encounter God. And to my personal delight, Root engages with the work of Bonhoeffer to drive this conclusion theologically. Through Bonhoeffer’s work in youth ministry especially, Root encourages modern congregations to spend intentional time with children, for nothing breaks the accelerated reality of modernity more quickly than the simple and full delight of a child’s joy. There is something brilliant in the simplicity of this proposal, couched as it is in the deep and thoughtful cultural critique that precedes it.
Andrew Root deserves to be recognized as one of our most important practical theologians, calling the church to a deeper understanding of the culture within which it disciples people “in participation with the life and ministry of this living God.” (207) For we truly do live in an age that yearns deeply for the fullness he describes, and that scripture points us towards in Christ. “We long to find a true fullness that draws us not through time, into some future, but more deeply into time itself. We long to live so deeply in time that we hear and feel the calling of eternity. We yearn to find once again the infinite in time, to find the sacred in the present, and therefore to be truly alive!” (169)
Joel Wentz is currently the Executive Pastor at Missio Dei Church in Portland, Maine. He previously served in college campus ministry with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. In addition to reading and writing, his passions include tabletop gaming, music, and coffee. His favorite book genres are epic fantasy and epic theology. He lives in Portland, Maine with his wife and son, and his personal writing and podcast are at: joelwentz.com